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Pause for Memorial Day

Remembering American heroes at the Alexandria National Cemetery.

In a quiet corner of Alexandria — tucked away on the east bank of Little Hunting Creek — is the Alexandria National Cemetery. It was created by President Abraham Lincoln in 1862, the first of many cemeteries to honor veterans. Although it is often overshadowed by the larger Arlington National Cemetery, which was built later, the five-and-a-half acre Alexandria cemetery is the final resting place of many veterans — as well as their spouses and children. This Memorial Day, like so many in the past, patrons will come here to remember the past and rededicate themselves to the future.

"This cemetery is a jewel — it's an absolute jewel, and very few people in Alexandria even know that it's here," said Bill Jones, commander of Veterans of Foreign Wars, Post 609. "There's something special about this place, and everybody who comes here can feel it. People in Alexandria need to know this cemetery is here and know what this means."

The cemetery is surrounded by a red sandstone wall, and it includes a meeting area where memorial ceremonies are held. A wrought-iron gate greets visitors who enter from the east. From 1862 until 1980, a superintendent lived on the grounds of the cemetery in a lodge that was originally designed by Civil War Quartermaster Montgomery Meigs. The Alexandria lodge was the prototype for the design, which was replicated in other cemeteries. Although the lodge was destroyed by fire in 1878, a replica was built over the surviving parts of the foundation.

More than 5,000 burials have taken place in the cemetery, including about 3,000 Union soldiers who died in the Civil War. The original headstones were made of wood, and were replaced by permanent stone monuments in the 1870s. Burials include 113 unknown soldiers and 280 blacks known as "buffalo soldiers." Other notable burials, include the four men who drowned in the Rappahannock River while in pursuit of John Wilkes Booth on April 24, 1865.

Several Confederate soldiers were buried at the cemetery during the war, but their bodies were moved to the Christ Church cemetery in the late 19th century. Veterans from World War I, World War II, the Korean War and the Vietnam War are also buried at the Alexandria National Cemetery. A limited number of spaces still exist for full-casket burials, and they are being reserved for wartime fatalities from the conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq.

"I pray every day that we don't have to use them, that no one else has to be buried here," said Jones. "Being a veteran of a war, I know that's a fool's dream. So I am a fool with a dream."

THE GETTYSBURG ADDRESS appears on a plaque at the entrance of the cemetery, just as President Lincoln's 1863 speech appears at every national cemetery.

"We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live," said Lincoln. "The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us — that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion — that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain — that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom — and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth."

For Jones, the dedication that Lincoln presented is a template from which the honored dead continue to be revered at the Alexandria National Cemetery.

"When I was a kid, I used to ride my bike here," he said. "I knew back then that there was something special about this place. I could feel it. I still can."

Jones is a disabled Vietnam veteran. He graduated from Wakefield High School in Arlington, and his lifelong fascination with the cemetery has made him an expert on its history. He regularly attends meetings of the Veterans of Foreign Wars at the lodge on the cemetery grounds.

"People ask me 'How can you meet at a cemetery?' But I tell them that there's no better place to hold a meeting of Veterans of Foreign Wars," he said. "Sometimes vets don't want to admit it, but we are most comfortable when we are around other vets. I think that's one of the reasons why this place is so wonderful — because we are surrounded by veterans."

MEMORIAL DAY was officially proclaimed on May 5, 1868 by Gen. John Logan, national commander of the Grand Army of the Republic, in General Order No. 11. The first observance of Memorial Day was on May 30, 1868, when flowers were placed on the graves of the war dead. In Alexandria, where tensions between North and South persisted, city residents refused to participate in Memorial Day because of its association with Gen. Logan. Confederate sympathizers chose different days to decorate the graves of their fallen heroes.

After World War I, two generations removed from the Civil War, the South joined the North in honoring all veterans. In 1971, Congress established Memorial Day as the last Monday in May.

"Memorial Day is such an important time, and it's significant that we can celebrate it here at the Alexandria National Cemetery," said Bill Cleveland, who will take part in the American Legion's ceremony at the cemetery. He plans to arrive at the cemetery at 6:30 a.m. to start laying wreaths for the event. "Now that I am retired from the Capitol Police, I am honored to be able to take part in this ceremony."

One of the features that interests Cleveland about the cemetery is 280 black Union soldiers that are buried in the cemetery.

"African Americans played a role in helping to build this city, so it's a great honor to have the buffalo soldiers buried here," he said. "In the past, blacks and whites couldn't be buried in the same cemeteries, so — to me — this represents a change in people's minds that they could be buried together. So I think the Alexandria National Cemetery is a really neat place, and one of the really special parts of the city."